TBWA Group UK has finally got a heavy-hitter. Tim Lindsay, the seasoned advertising man who has spent the past three years at Publicis, has been hired to revive an agency once revered as adland’s enfant terrible.
Lindsay had long been rumoured to be looking for an exit from the troubled Publicis and now he has been hired as chief executive of the group at TBWA. There are many famous TBWA alumni scattered around adland, and they have been concerned about the time it was taking parent company Omnicom to sort out the spiralling decline that the London agency has been experiencing. Its billings last year were £131.4m, down 16% from £155.5m in 2005.
The agency has been disrupted by not only management upheavals, including the breakaway set up by the agency’s creative chief Trevor Beattie and chief executive Andrew McGuinness, but also by some painful account losses such as Abbey, 3 and Eurostar. It has won some creatively uninspiring business recently, including Singapore Airlines, Powergen and Leapfrog. Critics say there is not much of a creative story to tell, though the appointment of former HHCL creative director Steve Henry as executive creative director by chief executive Matt Shepherd-Smith last summer has sent out signals of a “creative revival” at the agency.
In April, however, it was left leaderless again with the abrupt departure of European chairman Paul Bainsfair (MW March 22), though his critics say that he was not a man of action. One former colleague says of Bainsfair: “He never got his hands dirty and was like a swan gliding above the constellations, not doing very much.” Another says the agency’s resurrection has been made easier with the departure of “dead wood” like Bainsfair.
Bainsfair’s departure prompted the unveiling of the group’s integrated structure, which will include TBWA/London, Agency.com, Tequila and Stream all under the newly appointed group chief executive Lindsay.
Rekindle the fire
Under Lindsay’s leadership, says one advertising executive, the agency will find it easier to find its “firepower”. A former TBWA executive, Neil Christie, now managing director of Wieden & Kennedy, adds: “The agency already has a creative DNA and so it would be easier to resurrect a TBWA than an agency like McCann Erickson.”
Christie also rues the loss of talent and work from the London agency and says: “TBWA had the opportunity to be an agency with the creative clout of Bartle Bogle Hegarty and the scope of DDB, but the London office lost that opportunity. With people like Carl Johnson, Bainsfair, Beattie and Neil Dawson— all of whom have left — it is not surprising that the agency was top of the league. But it failed to keep its momentum and not only did it fail to retain that talent, it also saw its work decline and clients disappear.”
Another former TBWA executive adds that the agency has become a “pale imitation” of itself, and adds that the agency started losing its spunk when personalities like Johnny Hornby and Garry Lace left. “The agency is behaving like a manic depressive, with times at very high peaks and now at an extremely low ebb,” he adds.
Hot shop again?
But McGuinness defends his former agency and says: “It is true the agency once attracted talented people because it behaved like a hotshop at its best and had the feel of a local agency producing great creative work. Its domestic client list has been dwindling, but I think it is cyclical. It is not in any terminal decline though.”
The responsibility to work miracles lies on the shoulders of Lindsay. As McGuinness concludes: “The task for the agency now is to get back its confidence and the statesman-like Lindsay has the stature to do just that.”